Assateague Island
Administrative History
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Chapter VII:

The Mobile Resource

In most units of the National Park System, resources management is concerned primarily with perpetuation of the natural and cultural features on the land; the existence of the land base is taken for granted. Not so at Assateague. There a major concern has been what to do about the island itself—an island that has been most uncooperative about staying put.

When Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., flew over Assateague in 1941 he commented on its low, overwashed state and judged that it would have to be artificially elevated to serve recreational purposes. Stabilization measures had previously been undertaken at Cape Hatteras, and A. Clark Stratton and E.F. Preece of the National Park Service recommended similar work for Assateague if it were to be included in a national seashore (Chapter I).

The Army Corps of Engineers assisted in protective dune construction on the Virginia end of the island after Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1943. The Corps' last project there before authorization of the national seashore was the raising of a dune along Toms Cove Hook in 1962. [1]

The need for major stabilization work on Assateague was generally advocated by national seashore proponents as well as those holding out for private development in the early 1960s. At the 1964 Senate hearing on the seashore bill, Chairman S. Lawrence Hammerman of the Maryland Forests and Parks Commission supported Federal acquisition as the best way toward accomplishment of the task:

At the outset, sand dunes must be rebuilt and created; bulkheads must be constructed. A roads system and a sanitary system must be created and maintained in a major construction project.

Certainly, the machinery of the Federal parks system, with its vast experience and its present, dramatic expansion, is best equipped to initiate and perpetuate all of these services with little additional original outlay or future expense to the Maryland taxpayers.

The preservation of the dunes and the protection of the shoreline will be a never ceasing operation, once the park is established, to withstand the inroads of the tides and winds of the Atlantic Ocean. [2]

Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall had ideas as to how the work might be achieved. "Probably, this would be an ideal place for one of those youth conservation camps, if this program is implemented by the Congress," he testified. "These youngsters could help in constructing the protective dune that will stabilize the island, because much of the island is not stabilized at the present time." [3]

The National Parks Association, the leading conservation group that lobbied for minimal development of Assateague, offered a plan for the island in its November 1964 National Parks Magazine. Regardless of whether it were developed privately or brought under Federal ownership, the Association believed, "long stretches of Assateague Island's Atlantic frontage will require beach erosion control and dune stabilization work." [4]

In its 1965 promotional brochure, Assateague Island National Seashore: A Proposal, the Park Service cited the Cape Hatteras dune construction through bulldozing, sand fencing, and vegetation planting as a model for Assateague. It recommended a cooperative study with the Secretary of the Army for beach erosion control and hurricane protection. Provision for such a study was included in the legislation, and the Service asked the Corps of Engineers to extend its ongoing examination of Maryland coastal erosion to all of Assateague, including the Virginia portion. [5]

Scientific support for dune construction was restated in 1970. The "Assateague Ecological Studies Final Report," issued by the University of Maryland's Natural Resources Institute that October, cited a 1966 Rhode Island Agricultural Experiment Station report titled "The Restoration and Retention of Coastal Dunes with Fences and Vegetation." The latter report based on research on the Rhode Island coast in 1956, concluded that sand fences and properly cultivated vegetation were economical and effective for dune rebuilding. [6]

Just as the Assateague Ecological Studies report appeared, a different voice was heard. In a report prepared for the chief scientist of the National Park Service on Atlantic national seashores, Paul J. Godfrey of the University of Massachusetts characterized the barrier islands as inherently dynamic and unstable. Attempts to artificially stabilize them by dune building were not only doomed to failure but were ecologically harmful. The dredging of the bayside estuarine areas to obtain fill for dunes impaired marine productivity there and increased the possibility of bayside erosion. To the extent that the dunes held and prevented periodic overwash, they impeded the natural formation of salt marsh on the bayside, again adversely affecting productivity. [7]

The consequences of accepting the new view were profound. If islands like Assateague were inherently unstable, the feasibility of such development as had been mandated by the Assateague legislation was highly questionable. The effect of coastal processes on roads and structures at Cape Hatteras National Seashore was already clearly evident. There was still time to learn and apply the lesson at Assateague, where significant construction had been forestalled and where the tide was already running against compliance with the legislated development mandates (Chapter III).

In 1972 the NPS chief scientist's office asked Paul Godfrey and Robert Dolan, the principal researchers on the subject of coastal island dynamics, to summarize their findings and propose guidelines for management. The following year Director Ronald H. Walker announced new Service policies based on their recommendations. Barrier islands were recognized as transient, and roads paralleling the seashore and permanent development on them were to be avoided. Some special measures might be taken to prolong the existence of nationally significant historic features (e.g., the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse), but contingency plans for their relocation should be developed. Interpretive programs to inform the public of the reasons for the new approach were judged essential to its acceptance. [8]

Up to 1971 the Service had spent some $78,000 for dune construction and stabilization to protect its limited public developments on Assateague. In that year the Corps of Engineers found the island to have 22 miles of shoreline subject to critical erosion averaging three feet per year; it estimated remedial action to cost $14.5 million. [9] While rejecting any project of this magnitude, the Service did continue limited dunebuilding where necessary to extend the life of its few facilities on the island. Such work has most recently been undertaken at Toms Cove, Virginia, and at the McCabe house north of Assateague State Park in Maryland.

The most recent Corps of Engineers plan for the area, developed at NPS request, would bring sand from a shoal one—half mile east of Ocean City Inlet to the receding north end of Assateague. The initial cost would be $8.3 million; necessary replenishment every three years would require an average of $640,000 annually thereafter. This proposed exception to the general hands—off policy was justified on the grounds that the recession is man—caused (from the Ocean City Inlet jetties impeding the littoral drift) and therefore requires human remediation. [10]

The Ponies

Assateague's most famous resource may be its wild ponies. Best known is the herd in Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department and rounded up for the much—publicized annual swim and auction. The ponies of concern here are those owned by the National Park Service in the Maryland portion of the island.

When the national seashore was authorized in 1965, the original NPS ponies were owned by Paul Bradley, a seasonal resident of the North Beach area. In March 1966 the Maryland Department of Forests and Parks warned Bradley of legal action unless he moved within 30 days to keep his herd of 10 off state park property, where they were pulling up planted grass along the bridge causeway. "I want them off the island...," parks director Spencer P. Ellis told the press. "I'm not being hard—nose about this thing—I just think it would be best for the safety of the children who visit the island." [11]

Bradley discussed the problem with Superintendent Bertrum C. Roberts of the national seashore. Roberts expressed his desire to keep the ponies as part of the Assateague scene under certain conditions: management would limit their population to prevent overgrazing and render fencing unnecessary; the herd should be in public ownership and treated as part of Assateague's wildlife, not exploited by drives, swims, or carnivals; the herd would be protected by the Service, inspected, and given veterinary services as needed; no other herds would be permitted in the Maryland portion of the island. Bradley concurred and offered to sell or donate his ponies to the United States. Because the Government did not yet own sufficient land and Roberts feared trespass charges from private owners, he arranged an interim transfer to the Berlin—Ocean City Jaycees. The transfer was on paper; the herd never left the island. Two years later, in June 1968, the Jaycees gave the Service title to the ponies. [12]

Writing to another park superintendent in October 1970, Roberts reviewed his experience with the ponies to that point:

The Service—owned herd of Assateague ponies have finally, after five heavy use seasons, become accustomed to human activity. On the surface this appears to be a great boon for the visitor. This year, however, we experienced our first cases of horse bites and kicks because of the "taming" of these wild little beasts. This according to our Solicitor must result in "do no feed, pet, or otherwise get involved with the pony" signs at the seashore entrances as well as in the appropriate park literature. It is difficult to conceive that this problem is with us at a seashore, but it is. [13]

By the mid—1970s the increasing population of the herd was thought to be endangering certain plant species on the island. The Service contracted with Ronald R. Keiper, a Pennsylvania State University biologist, in 1975 to evaluate the grazing effects and determine the carrying capacities of the dune, interdune, and marsh vegetative zones. Based on annual studies of the behavior, ecology, and social organization of the ponies, Keiper reported in 1982 that the existing population of some 80 animals was having little adverse effect on island vegetation other than on the northern tip. A reduced foaling rate led him to predict that the estimated Maryland carrying capacity of 150 would not be reached until at least the end of the decade. In the meantime, the park would allow the herd to continue its natural increase. [14]

In August 1978 the Virginia Secretary of Human Resources expressed concern that a stallion with equine infectious anemia (EIA) from the Maryland herd had crossed the fence at the state line and mingled with the Virginia herd. Other such trespasses occurred periodically, making it difficult for the Virginia animals to be certified disease—free at the annual auction if the Maryland herd was infected. A meeting was held at Chincoteague on the subject, and John Karish, an NPS research biologist at Pennsylvania State University, initiated plans to corral all Maryland ponies for EIA testing. Because the problem was not judged critical, the plans were not implemented. [15]

Superintendent Richard S. Tousley complained of another pony problem in his 1979 annual report. The beasts were staging daily raids on the campground trash cans. Clustering the cans in enclosures kept the ponies out but discouraged lazy campers from delivering their trash to the central clusters. Although picturesque, the ponies have tried the patience of Assateague's administrators on a regular basis.


In most units of the National Park System, hunting is strictly prohibited. At Assateague, as at certain other areas in the Service's former (1964—1977) "recreational" category, hunting was and is explicitly permitted by law. The Assateague legislation in effect recognized the longstanding existence of this use of the island, which supported several hunting camps and gun clubs.

A cooperative agreement with the Maryland Fish and Wildlife Administration in October 1971 implemented the legislative provision for fishing and hunting in designated Maryland portions of the island under applicable Federal and state laws. Although not specifically mentioned in the Assateague act, trapping was also allowed. In 1976 Interpretive Specialist Larry G. Points expressed concern about "management's continued indifference to trapping on Assateague"—especially trapping of otter, whose numbers appeared very limited. Noting that researchers were making serious studies of the ponies and peregrine falcons, Points called for a good census of all fur—bearing animals on Assateague that could be jeopardized by trapping or extension of the wildlife refuge's mission of maximizing waterfowl populations. [16]

In 1979 a mandatory registration system for trapping was instituted. Only four applicants placed traps, with no reported success. Also inaugurated was a lottery system for waterfowl hunters using Assateague's 27 public blinds. [17]

Objections to trapping in the National Park System culminated in a proposed Service regulation published for public comment in March 1982: "Trapping is prohibited in all park areas, except where specifically required by Federal statutory law." [18] Assateague was among 13 parks where trapping was practiced without such legal sanction and would be eliminated if the regulation were approved, as appeared likely. Superintendent Michael V. Finley of Assateague was closely involved in drafting this and related provisions affecting resource preservation and use throughout the System.

Cultural Resources

Cultural resources management at Assateague was grounded on the "General Background Study and Historical Base Map" prepared by Historian Edwin C. Bearss of the NPS Washington Office in 1968. The comprehensive Bearss study documented historic island settlements, commercial activities, grazing use, the presence of the U.S. Life—Saving Service and Coast Guard, and a range of other human activities on and around the island since Giovanni da Verrazzano's voyage to the vicinity in 1524. Bearss' most important contribution was his identification and evaluation of extant site and structures associated with these activities.

The major historic property acquired by the Service was the Assateague each Coast Guard Station on Toms Cove Hook. Dating from 1922, the station was decommissioned and transferred to NPS in January 1967. The Service used the main building and adjoining boathouse for seasonal quarters and storage.

In 1972 a National Register of Historic Places nomination form on the station was submitted to the Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), who had the property placed in the Virginia Landmarks Register the following year. Arguing that the station was relatively recent, lacked uniqueness or outstanding architectural value, and would be unduly expensive to preserve as a National Register property, Regional Director Chester L. Brooks in 1975 told the SHPO that the Service would not nominate it to the National Register and suggested that he remove it from the Virginia Landmarks Register. The SHPO balked at this, and the regional office ultimately agreed to seek an official determination of National Register eligibility. The Keeper of the National Register in Washington found the station eligible for the Register on January 15, 1980, making it the only NPS property on Assateague with this status. [19]

Later that year a Service structural engineer inspected that station and found the boathouse pilings endangered by marine borers. He recommended that all pilings be wrapped with plastic to suffocate the boring organisms. [20] The project was implemented without substantially altering the appearance of the pilings.

The only other historic structures that came into NPS hands were those of the Popes Island Life—Saving Station, built in 1878—79 and abandoned in 1953. It deteriorated rapidly after the March 1962 storm. "Unless steps are taken to stabilize and restore the structures," Bearss commented in his 1968 study, "they will soon disappear." The main building and two small outbuildings were destroyed by fire from an unknown cause during the evening of October 18, 1970. [21] The boathouse was spared, and in 1978 it was moved to North Beach near the site of the former North Beach Life—Saving Station. There it was restored and put to appropriate adaptive use. The only other remaining structure of the Popes Island complex, a coalhouse, burned in 1981.

A comprehensive archeological survey, normally a prerequisite to planning for development and use, was considered but not pursued during the general management planning process in 1978. Regional Archeologist David G. Orr defended the lack of immediate action by opining that the fluid nature of Assateague rendered the presence of significant archeological resources unlikely. [22]

Wayne E. Clark, an archeologist for the Maryland SHPO, took exception to Orr's opinion in a 1979 letter to the regional director: "[T]he archeological potential of the Island is much greater than that attributed to the Island by your archeologist. . . . The underwater archeological potential of Assateague is high while the potential for prehistoric sites is moderate." Clark noted the existence of undisturbed island terrain and some 600 shipwrecks off the Maryland coast, including an 18th—century Spanish wreck; [23] the wrecks, however, were beyond the bounds of NPS ownership.

The subsequent "Preferred Planning Alternative for Assateague Island Comprehensive Plan" of 1979 declared that an archeological survey of NPS lands would be complete in 1981. The Draft General Management Plan of 1981 stated that the survey had been programmed for 1984. The final General Management Plan issued in June 1982 stated only that "an archeological survey of Assateague Island will be completed." The memorandum of agreement with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and Maryland and Virginia SHPOs appended to the plan included a related stipulation:

NPS will undertake its proposed archeological survey and evaluation program. Included will be a re—evaluation of the significance of known sites of ruined historic structures as archeological properties. The survey will be developed and conducted in consultation with the Maryland and Virginia SHPOs and will take into account information from both SHPOs on known properties, previous surveys and other investigations performed in the area, and any recommendations they may have on appropriate survey methods. As part of this effort, the known shipwrecks located off the oceanside shore of Assateague Island will be evaluated to determine whether they meet National Register Criteria. NPS will obtain applicable Federal and State permits, as necessary, for any field investigations which might have an effect on such properties. Any of the identified properties under NPS jurisdiction that meet the Criteria will be managed in accordance with NPS—28 [the Service's Cultural Resources Management Guideline]. Public interpretation of any historic properties under exclusively State jurisdiction, including disclosure of locational information, will be done in consultation with the appropriate SHPO.

An Afterthought

It might appear from the foregoing discussion that natural and especially cultural resource preservation has not been the highest priority at Assateague. If so, Assateague's managers have been guilty of obeying the law authorizing the seashore, which addressed natural conservation only in the context of "public enjoyment and historic preservation not at all. The 1976 amendatory legislation prescribed a comprehensive plan giving greater weight to the protection of natural resources, but it left intact the original language assigning primacy to public outdoor recreation and remained silent on cultural resources. For preservation of the latter, the Service had to reach to the general authorities and mandates of the NPS Organic Act of 1916, Executive Order 11593 of 1971, and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as amended. Under the circumstances, it is understandable and indeed appropriate that Assateague's limited funding and manpower have gone first for that purpose most explicitly charged to its custodians.

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Last Updated: 27-Oct-2003